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Catherine Kehoe, 'Pogrzeb (Funeral)'
Catherine Kehoe's 2006 oil-on-panel "Pogrzeb (Funeral)" is among the works in her exhibit "Direct Descent" at Howard Yezerski Gallery. (Courtesey of Howard Yezerski Gallery)

Drawing on lost memories

Artist paints the relatives she never met

Snapshots of grandparents you never knew can be maddeningly haunting, like treasure chests you can't open. There might be familiar expressions on their faces, but the personalities, dispositions, and family secrets are inaccessible.

Painter Catherine Kehoe, curious about her own roots, googled the name of a Polish grandmother she knew little about. The computer search led her to distant cousins she had never met, who e-mailed her scans of old photos of the family. She still didn't know much, but she started painting portraits, using the photos as source material. The result is an intimate, moving show at the Howard Yezerski Gallery.

An exhibition like this could easily descend into misty treacle. But there's nothing sentimental about these small, expertly crafted paintings. The palette is a yellowish sepia that in paint feels almost aggressive. The images are crisp. The figures don't smile; they pose stiffly. Kehoe has always had a talent for constructing strong portraits from planes of color. Look at "Emilia," a portrait of her grandmother: Her cheeks and forehead, even her jowls, suggest the faceted surfaces of a jewel.

This cubist style works to Kehoe's advantage. In "Helen and Emilia, 1926" a pleated skirt looks stiff, smooth, and cornered as if it has been over-starched. That and the zig zag layout of the fence behind the two young women frame them sparingly. Their faces are delicately rendered, but opaque and mysterious. Even in "Pogrzeb (Funeral)," a depiction of mourners, there's a sense of inaccessibility, of emotions held in check.

The artist will never know her ancestors. But the power of longing and imagination that comes with not knowing is just as interesting.

Ghosts of van Gogh
Nanno de Groot was a Dutch painter who came to the United States after World War II, built a home in Provincetown, and painted the world around him until he died in 1963. His paintings at ACME Fine Art and Design suggest that in some ways de Groot wrestled with the ghost of his compatriot, Vincent van Gogh -- a match he could never win. Like van Gogh, he slathered paint on the canvas with bravura; he brought an Abstract-Expressionist fervency to the work.

De Groot's "Sunflowers" (1961) must have been an homage to van Gogh. They're deftly done, bristling in thick dabs that rise up off the canvas against a white, frosting-like ground that looks finger-painted on. They're strong, but too derivative.

His ocean scenes reveal a more original vision. In "Big Wave" (1960), almost 6 feet across, he captures the energy of the wave by cupping its smooth, deep-blue underside with wild white above and below. Paintings like this and "High Green Field" (1962) bring the viewer nose to nose with the subject. You're nearly lying in the field, or on the verge of being knocked over by a wave.

ACME has also mounted an intriguing, behind-the-scenes show featuring charcoal figure drawings made by artists in Hans Hofmann's Provincetown art class in the mid-20th century. It includes a huge range, from Haynes Ownby's cubist 1952 sketch "Figure Drawing #5," in which you can hardly make out the model, to Maud Morgan's more readable but still insistently planar 1940 drawing "Studio Nude." There's a fascinating 1954 piece that started out as a study by Myrna Harrison, but Hofmann took it over, angling out her soft corners; she drew a small box around what was left of her own work on the page.

Big and bold
SunTek Chung, who has a comical show at Samson Projects, is a photographer like Gregory Crewdson and Yasumasa Morimura , elaborately staging his large-scale color images. Like Morimura and Cindy Sherman , Chung inserts himself into the scenes. He uses this forum to take a tongue-in-cheek view of race in America, among other topics.

The Asian-American artist reportedly gained 30 pounds and grew sideburns and a mullet in order to shoot "The South, The South," an image of a beer-swilling biker sitting on the stoop of a shack, where a part-Confederate, part-South Korean flag hangs in the door . The adroit "Chapter 43: Heaven & Earth" has him in the role of Huck Finn on a raft; the man playing Jim is of indeterminate race.

"Ich R Us" is a modern update of the Icarus myth. In Chung's version, Icarus and D a edalus hover in the sky using wings made up of several rotating fans. It's a funny image, the graceful wings all clunky and awkward. Slick large-scale photos are almost inevitably alluring, but this piece feels closer to a sight gag, like a New Yorker cartoon, than it does to a work of art. There's also one sculpture here, "Kingdom Come," which interweaves images from Buddhism, such as a Zen garden and prayer beads, with corporate logos and computer equipment; it strains to make a political point about the digitalization of spirituality.